Thursday, November 15, 2018

Administrative Note

I've been writing a follow-up to the "What is magic?" post, going into more depth and detail. For now, though, I would like to note that I've turned on comment moderation for all comments on this blog. The spam has gotten worse over the last couple of years, and lately they are homing in on the newer posts that had remained unmoderated here. As a result, I'm going to have to approve all comments for at least a little while. Sorry.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What Is Magic In The First Place?

In the last post, I presented a library of sourceworks to serve as a foundation for an understanding of magic that could apply to the Middle Sea and Sundaland settings, as well as future incarnations of my Deindustrial Future setting. Partly, I wanted to clearly differentiate my approach from that of another occultist and gaming blogger, whose series on "Real Magick in RPGs"—yes, that is the spelling he uses for the word—is worth reading, but presents the topic from a very partisan perspective (much as that author's politics! ZING!) which can be quite misleading for those who take it literally and without a wider view. I won't link it because the author is kind of a jerk, but it's easy enough to Google that series up.

To figure out how magic works, we first need to know what magic is. This is an incredibly difficult question to answer definitively, and the more so as it is examined more closely. For my purposes, I will assume that "magic" is what historical magicians or magician-like people thought that they were doing. This isn't a hard and fast definition at all since it requires us to look at what "magicians" do in day to day life, and that is simply not possible from our vantage point here in the early 21st century. Even as recent an era as the 1980s remains somewhat opaque since our main source work on practicing magicians from that period has a number of methodological problems.

To our benefit, a number of magicians wrote down, in outline at least, descriptions of how they pursued their practices. While there is some obscurantism in many of these works, a lot of the codes have also been written down and others have been broken.

For simplicity, I am going to focus on the (very) Late Antique, Early Modern, and Modern eras in Europe, say from the 7th century or so on through into the 18th or 19th, and even the 20th and 21st to a degree.

Earliest in our period and location, we find the Greek Magical Papyri and the Demotic Magical Papyri (PGM/PDM). These are a collection of various papyrus manuscripts that record in quite close detail the practices of magicians of Antiquity, with some of the practices perhaps originating in prehistory. We do not need to examine this in detail, however, and will only note in passing that there is a clear line of transmission from these manuscripts into later European magical works. If you are interested in pursuing this further, I'd suggest Betz, Hans Dieter - The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Skinner, Dr. Stephen - Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, and Smith, Morton - Jesus the Magician. Those would get you started.

Another source text, roughly contemporaneous with the PGM/PDM, is Sefer HaRazim, a collection of Jewish magical practices involved with conjuring the spirits of the dead, appeasing them, exorcising them, and so forth. Our interest here is mainly to show that there is a melting pot of practices in the eastern Mediterranean region, from Egypt to Greece, that resulted in a basic pattern of what would become the central magical practices of Europe for centuries to come.

Because of the way that books were circulated in Europe prior to the introduction of the printing press, there are lines of tradition that we can consider, rather than necessarily individual titles. So, for example, there is the "Solomonic" line of texts, which include books that find their ultimate origin in the Byzantine magical text known variously as Hygromanteia (Ὑγρομαντεία), Solomonikê (Σολομωνική), or The Magical Treatise of Solomon, among other names. However, these books vary greatly in the exact text, with some leaving parts out, adding new parts, or rearranging sections. The Solomonic books make up most of the magical texts that exist, but there other others such as Picatrix, which finds its origin in an Arabian text titled Ghayat al-Hakim ("Goal of the Wise"), translated initially into Latin then into other languages; the similarly-named but different traditions of the Cyprianus, or Swedish Svarteboken, which lead to the Braucherei tradition, also known as Pennsylvania Hex magic, among others, and the books of magic that attribute themselves to St. Cyprian of Antioch, the "Necromancer Saint"; the Faustian tradition, which consists of a number of texts that seem to be based on the legend or play; variations of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim; and a few others. Some of these are among the strands of tradition that form the various African Traditional Religions as practiced in the New World. More recent years have brought a few further texts such as the infamous Necronomicon, widely available in a mass market edition from Avon Books; The Voudon Gnostic Workbook by Michael Bertiaux and related books; the various works of "Chaos Magick" theorists and practitioners such as Peter Carroll, Phil Hine, and others; various texts on "witchcraft" of varying quality, some connected with the religion known as Wicca and many not; the practice known as "Huna" developed by Max Freedom Long; the Thelemic and other texts associated with Thelema, many by Aleister Crowley, though a lot of more obscure books written by others; the Thelemic works have their origin in a strand of tradition known as the Golden Dawn, which owes at least a portion of its practices to the works of Éliphas Lévi; the rediscovery of Dr. John Dee's 16th and early 17th century magical manuscripts in the 19th century was another influence on the Golden Dawn and Thelema, but that collection also forms a tradition of its own. In addition, there are folk magical practices, some recorded relatively faithfully—such as in the Rev. Robert Kirk's manuscript The Secret Commonwealth, published in an abridged form in the 19th century, then in a more complete form in the 20th—while others can only be seen dimly from the point of view of people antagonistic to them such as the records of witch and werewolf trials mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries. And this really isn't a complete catalog.

This anarchic mass of textual data is difficult to assimilate. However, we can point out a few common practices throughout. First, there is "Spirit Magic", in which various "spirits"—whatever we may come to mean by this—are interacted with in various ways. This can be through divination of various sorts, the perceptions of a sensitive "medium", or even full-on possession, as with "channeling" or the practices of various African Traditional Religions. This includes practices which purport to direct or determine the influence of "astral energies"—sometimes called Astral Magic—and the practices known as "theurgy" which are designed to align the practitioner with some spiritual power. Further, the practices known as Natural Magic, which intend to direct the powers of natural objects such as herbs and stones, or even the more sophisticated methods of the Alchemists, can also be seen as directing or assessing the spirits of those objects. Some forms of Natural Magic (and the same is true of Astral Magic) intend to take advantage of psychological processes, such as a similarity of appearance, but others rely on real or apparent physical properties.

Second, there is divination that is not apparently related to spirits. This is a difficult distinction to make, though, and only becomes more so as the idea of spirits is examined more deeply. However, the idea of viewing locations at a distance, which some now call "remote viewing", has an ancient pedigree. Other forms include "oneiromancy", or the interpretation of dreams, scrying, inducing various sorts of altered states of consciousness, and various forms of sortilege, or casting and otherwise manipulating lots, cards, sticks, dice, or whatever, among other things. This is a major topic of its own.

Thirdly, we can identify what we might call "Psychic Magic", or "magic" that is related to altered states of consciousness. This crosses over to "Spirit Magic" and "Divination" considerably, but includes other practices such as the "berserk" state, self-hypnosis, and induction of hypnotic states in others. There are other examples as well.

Finally, there is the practice of "Illusion". This is exactly the sort of thing that modern stage magicians do. The thing is, it turns out that a lot of magical practices occur on a purely internal, invisible level. Sometimes, that internal, invisible matter needs to be dramatized, and so we find practitioners engaging in allegedly "fraudulent" (though, notably, the only perspective from which there is fraud is from a naïve, predetermined, materialist one; other perspectives will emphasize the efficacy rather than any theoretical metaphysics allegedly underlying the practices), but nonetheless effective to some degree, practices like "psychic surgery" or the like.

And here is a point for a quick digression. Everyone has a metaphysics, whether they understand it consciously or not. This is the model of how the universe works that allows a person to comprehend the things that happen around them. There is no known way to prove one metaphysical model over another, except perhaps by comparing effectiveness—and that only shows a relative effectiveness by whatever definition of "effective" is employed, not any final determination of objective validity. But this is another essay entirely. For our purposes, let's just agree that a non-materialistic model of the universe is at least possible, and so the universe of the magician is not a prima facie impossibility.

I may have missed some other practices, but these seem like the central four to me. This model offers a primary place for "spirits", which leads us to the next question: what, exactly, is a "spirit"? That is a good question for next time. Also, at some point I need to get more explicit about the gaming connection. I'll get there.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Continuing To Evolve An Approach To Magic - Introductory Library

For both the Sundaland and Middle Sea settings, and perhaps for future iterations of the Deindustrial Future setting, I want to keep refining my approach to magic. I've never been very fond of the lightning bolts and fireballs approach of D&D and its derivatives, even though I understand the process that got it there. I'm also not really that happy with the exploding chests ("I think I will take your heart, Kerim Shah!") and rays of energy approach of Conan and the like. I want magic to be subtle, but still effective.

To that end, I have been trying to work out an approach that retains the mystery of magic and the spiritual world, but also would allow me to replicate something like the way that magic is perceived in the world we live in. Clearly, there are magicians. Equally clearly, there are people who employ those magicians to do something for them. What it is that they do is the area I want to try to approach for my games and stories.

As usual for my process, I want to start by providing a library for anyone who might be interested in a similar approach. Mostly, it's books by people who seem to think that magic is a real thing that can have real effects in the world, but some of it is by anthropologists who study people who seem to think that way.

  • Child, Alice B. and Irvin L. Child - Religion and Magic in the Life of Traditional Peoples - an excellent overview of the subject from an anthropological perspective.
  • Couliano, Ioan P. - Eros and Magic in the Renaissance - Prof. Culianu's work regarding magic, or rather his apparent practical application of the principles to the political situation in his native Romania, may have resulted in his assassination in a bathroom at the university where he taught. In any case, perhaps the best introduction to the realities of magic as it was understood by at least one famous Renaissance-era magician.
  • Dunn, Patrick - Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age - an attempt to provide an explanation for magic, different than some others here, but definitely worth looking into. Dunn has other books on the subject as well.
  • Greer, John Michael - Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology - one attempt to lay out the practical boundaries of magic from the point of view of one practitioner. Different people are of the opinion that there is more or less permeability between different "levels" of existence, and that there are more or fewer levels in the first place, but this offers a pretty basic outline of the general concept.
  • Greer, John Michael - A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism - a polemic argument in favor of spirit beliefs.
  • Harpur, Patrick - Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld - an essay toward a reconciliation of materialism and spiritualism through some strange ideas indeed. Like a lot of similar works, ends up talking about flying saucers, by necessity.
  • "IAO131" - Naturalistic Occultism: An Introduction to Scientific Illuminism - in addition, the author maintains a website here. An overview of those elements of traditional magical practices that have correlations with neuroscience and similar disciplines.
  • Keel, John A. - Operation Trojan Horse: The Classic Breakthrough Study of UFOs - sometimes titled UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse, Keel penned one of the more interesting books on a phenomenon where some of the stranger details make more sense from a spiritual/animist perspective than a materialist one.
  • Keith, William H. Jr. - The Science of the Craft: Modern Realities in the Ancient Art of Witchcraft - tried perhaps too hard to reconcile science and magic. Ends up going down a quantum mechanic-esque rabbit hole. Some of the ideas serve to provide an introduction into the fringes of science that lead to difficult questions about the materialist assumptions regarding reality.
  • Lecouteux, Claude - Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages - I'll let this stand in for a great number of works by Lecouteux. An excellent introduction to the ideas that underpin Northern European magical ideas. He has a number of excellent books on the topic, some still awaiting translation to English.
  • Luhrmann, T.M. - Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England - Luhrmann was castigated by her informants after the fact for betraying their confidence, and she chose to "explain" elements of her informants' testimony from her own perspective. This is both a detriment and a benefit, as it gives a partial explanation of magic that is palatable to those with a modern materialist set of assumptions, but it also caused her to miss a lot of what was going on. Really needs to be supplemented with some of the other books in this list.
  • Paper, Jordan - The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology - a description of spirit belief from an educated insider.
  • Pócs, Éva - Between the Living and the Dead - spirit beliefs in Eastern Europe.
  • "Skallagrimsson, Wayland" - Scientific Magic - an attempt to define magic as a product of altered states of consciousness. Pretty good, but as a result of its central thesis it is unable to cover more than a fraction of magical practices.
  • Walsh, Brian - The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex - an analysis of an early anthropological essay regarding native spiritual beliefs in Northwestern Europe.
  • Wier, Dennis - Trance: From Magic to Technology - the author has a number of other books here, but I haven't read any of his others.
  • Wilby, Emma - Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic - an overview of the matter as it existed in recent history in largely English-speaking regions.
So, that's my introductory library. I could add any number of other works, such as those which include recorded testimony of accused werewolves in Europe—you might be surprised to find out how prosaic their claims really were—or the large body of texts on NLP, hypnosis, and stage illusion, among other topics. I didn't even touch on the literature about entheogenic substances and practices.

Anyway, next time I'll get into how I think that magic should work in my settings.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Re-Approaching The Middle Sea

A few years ago, I published a few articles on a world I called the Middle Sea World. You can find most or all of the posts at the Middle Sea tag here. Anyway, I sort of let it fall aside as I was doing too much worldbuilding for the original idea, in part because I had no group to play with at the time.

A few days ago, as I picked up my copy of Lords of the Middle Sea (the original inspiration for the map, if not the setting), it occurred to me that the setting of that wargame was pretty interesting in itself. Also, it makes a thematic parallel to the Sundaland setting I mentioned in the last post. Sundaland is set in the distant past, when the sea levels were lower than today, while the Middle Sea is set in the future with sea levels that are much higher.

As a quick aside, Lords of the Middle Sea was inspired by a story titled "The Great Nebraska Sea", the text of which can be found here along with a map that was inspired by the story. Obviously, there are differences between the inspiration and the Chaosium wargame.

Map used in Lords of the Middle Sea
Anyway, in the game there are six factions, four of which are player positions. These are the resurgent Aztec empire of the Nahuas; the remains of Catholic Mexico, pushed further to the North; the horse-riding nomads of Transwyoming stretching from the Pacific Northwest to the peninsula above the Nebraska Sea; the seafaring, warlike petty kingdoms of the Wardoms of Appalach, recently united under a single king; the small (and neutral as regards the players) nation of Centerline from the land formerly in southern Wisconsin up into the former Minnesota; and the great seagoing Arks of the Salvar clans based out of islands that were once San Francisco and the Ouachita Mountains, also neutral in regard to the players. Each faction has a different advantage: the Nahuas have large cities and so can recruit more troops from them, the Transwyoming peoples can maintain larger forces of light cavalry, the Wardoms of Appalach have larger numbers of warships available and more access to large, submerged cities to ransack for lost technology if they can hire the Salvar Arks, and Mexico—holding onto the remains of North America's helium reserves—has not only the only source for building dirigible airships, but also the single largest source of victory points at the very start of the game.

Each of the player factions also has a King, who can travel either with a small military retinue of around 600 elite soldiers or incognito. Each has its benefits and hazards, and the King can change from one to the other in various circumstances. As Kings gain experience by performing quests, winning battles, and so forth, they can "level up" to become a Hero-King or even a Sorcerer-King. Hero-Kings may choose one special ability from a list, while Sorcerer-Kings can use any ability on the list—but only one per turn. Quests can also lead to lost Libraries, which give special benefits to the faction that possesses one. Similarly, salvaging lost technology provides benefits ranging from permanent increases to all of a faction's combat statistics through an increase in the faction's treasury and other bonuses.

A really rough version of the map of the Middle Sea
world—notice the difference
For me, I don't much like the Nebraska Sea part of the setting. There is the wonderful image of the Godwall, a thousand-foot cliff along the coast where the land collapsed to create the sea, but it's not enough to save the idea for me. I like the simple plains sloping gently up out of the Middle Sea toward the Rockies. It gives me the option to place more factions/kingdoms too.

I can combine this with some of the deindustrialized future ideas I have, too. Drawing on the concept from GURPS After the End where higher technology exists but is increasingly more expensive, while a Renaissance level of tech is more easily sustainable, that lets me include even more exotic ideas like enormously expensive alcohol-fueled aircraft—maybe biplanes!—mounting machine guns fighting helium-filled dirigibles carrying smoothbore guns and sailing ships armed with anti-air black powder rockets. Characters will probably carry flintlock or matchlock guns, with swords as sidearms to meet opponents who survive the gun volley, though some might spring for the expense of a black powder caplock revolver instead, or perhaps even take on the continuing expense of cartridge ammunition.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Deindustrial Future Update And Sword & Sorcery Campaign Setting Idea

After spending some time healing up, the characters started to question the spirit of the former Town Marshall, learning that Joe's father was the person in town who was most involved with conjuring spirits but little else. After deciding to go out to Joe's farm, they were distracted by a disturbance at the blacksmith's down the street. Arriving and asking for information from the Deputy Marshalls there, they learned that the blacksmith had been disemboweled and ritualistically mutilated.

Finally getting out to Joe's farm, the characters found themselves walking into a siege. Quickly dispatching four of the ranch hands, they got into Joe's house and assessed the situation, determining that at least ten more ranch hands had surrounded the house. At this point, we ran out of time.

I like sword & sorcery fiction. A lot of the early works drew on the occult history outlined by Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy movement. This is especially true of the proto-sword & sorcery fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The correspondences between the races and structures of Barsoom and the speculations of Theosophy are complete. H.P. Lovecraft derived many of the concepts of his weird fiction from the same source, and Robert E. Howard—arguably the originator of sword & sorcery—drew on the material both directly and through adopting ideas from Lovecraft.

This is great, except for the fact that the occult history of Theosophy is also intensely, deeply racist. That the authors in question also had such ideas didn't make anything better.

I do think that drawing on occult histories as a basis for sword & sorcery fiction is a great idea, but unfortunately the Theosophical one cast a long shadow over the twentieth century and even into the present one. However, there has been a recent attempt to move away from the methods and ideas of Theosophy in crafting a new occult history.

Occult histories are a useful technique that are intended to assist creative approaches to data by creating a structure at odds with the accepted ideas. By creating an approving context for concepts that are disapproved by the intellectual authorities of our society, they allow for questioning of things that are conventionally accepted. Whether this is a good idea or not is up to you, but I think that it's at the very least useful for creative works.

As it happens, there is a recent attempt to forge a new occult history that draws on both cutting edge and fringe archaeology instead of the fringe Indology that informs the Theosophical one. A "chaos magician" named Gordon White recently published a few works, among them Star.Ships. Despite the title, the book explicitly disclaims the idea that extraterrestrial aliens had anything to do with our world. Instead, it lays out an argument that world history and prehistory is better explained from an animist perspective than a materialist one, and offers a history that incorporates everything from the "impossible" mesolithic site of Göbekli Tepe through Gunung Padang, strange anomalies about the Pyramids of Giza to the weirdly specific coincidences of astronomical mythology around the world—such as why just about everyone from Europe and Asia through to North and South America associates Sirius with canines—and more. Recently, a find of petroglyphs in India that seem related in style to other petroglyph finds, and which date to the appropriate era, seem to provide further support for the idea. Whether a stepped pyramid identified in China bears any relation remains to be seen, though the dating makes it seem unlikely.

Notably, for my purposes, it lays out some of the possibilities of a prehistoric civilization in the Sundaland region, which is now largely beneath the waves after being submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. The civilization would have been a mesolithic hunter-gatherer society which, if White's ideas are examined, had a sophisticated shipbuilding culture with advanced astronomical navigation and possibly advanced social organization. Its influence, then, would have spread across the ocean, from the Middle East and Nile Valley to southern Asia, up into China, Japan, and the Philippines, across to the Pacific Islands, and even to South America. If Göbekli Tepe was related to this culture, then its influence might even have reached to the Anatolian peninsula and so maybe even into the Old European cultures.

Players and readers don't seem to get very excited about Stone Age cultures, though, so I think that it would be worthwhile to suppose that the Bronze Age got a very early start in Sundaland. Like Howard's Hyboria, this allows for city-states and armies at a time when, as far as we know, they were not particularly likely in the real-world prehistory. Since some people connect the idea of Sundaland with Plato's story of Atlantis—among other things, the dates happen to match up, where other theories of Atlantis require assuming that the dates were wrong in some way—we can equate orichalcum "mountain copper" with bronze, which seems to be the trend today anyway.

Anyway, a lot of details still to work out, but it seems like it should be an interesting sword & sorcery setting. With ancient serpent people and the occasional Pleistocene—or even earlier—monster, along with the Flores Island "hobbits", there is plenty of room for the kind of weird adventure that makes for a rolicking story.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Just Updates

Turns out that I am not able to run two games concurrently, so the MegaTraveller game went on a long-term hiatus almost immediately.

Scheduling issues have kept us from meeting much in the last month or so.

I'm probably not going to write up the fourth session of the GURPS Deindustrial Future game in detail. It was a lot of investigation, then the players tried to visit the ranch boss who seems to be the cause of the troubles they've been dealing with. On the way, one of the ranch hands fired a musket at the group as they rode up the road to the ranch, hitting Clementine and severely injuring her. The ranch hand ran off to a fate unknown to the players. When they confronted the ranch boss, it quickly became apparent that the town marshall had visited earlier and been killed, as her spirit was still hanging around and attempted (badly) to communicate with Caleb, one of whose talents is the ability to act as a spirit medium. The marshall's spirit has followed the PCs back to town and is quickly learning how to be an effective ghost.

The nominal fifth session was a mostly administrative one. I discussed how the adventure is going with the players and learned that the reason Caleb's player hasn't really been using magic much is that he didn't know some of the aspects of the Path/Book system, so I helped him out and now all of the PCs are loaded up with amulets and blessings. Both of the injured characters have been given Succor and have healed up in a matter of a few days.

It's been my observation that the Path/Book Adept advantage is priced far too cheaply. After some quick calculations, I think that it should be set at either 15 or 20 points per level. I won't make that change in the current campaign, though I will likely adopt it in the future when using that magic system.

As the current adventure nears an ending, I have been thinking about what to do next—whether to continue the current setting or start up a new one. I'm pretty interested in starting up a new setting for a different sort of adventure with the option to return to the Deindustrial Future one. Something with more melee weapons and fewer guns maybe. The players seem to be interested in continuing with GURPS, which I can live with. Maybe I'll shift back into high gear on the GURPS Greyhawk concept. Or maybe I can do a GURPS Voodoo/Illuminati/Cabal mashup with plenty of wuxia martial arts and spirit warriors.

Alternately, one of the players was in the game when I ran RuneQuest 3rd edition (that's the one from Avalon Hill) a number of years back. He has generated some interest among the other players by talking it up pretty glowingly and I have been playing around with an idea for a setting that uses systems developed for that game.

Or, as you may recall, there's that long list of other ideas I've had, and I have an even longer list sitting in my files right now.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Adventure Design Consideration

Still haven't written up the Deindustrial Future episode 4 report, and we played a game of MegaTraveller set in a small-ship LBB77-style universe of my own dicing. I should write that one up, too.

I've been reading a few reviews of adventures lately that pick on one thing: adventure space "wasted" on things that the Referee can make up themself. On the one hand, I can see this. It wastes space that could be used for something of more value, or else could be edited out to save on the size of the product. That's fine and all. The thing is, though, that I want those things. I can for sure make up the contents of a kitchen or pantry, but sometimes in the heat of running a game I don't want to make them up. I want something I can look at and just lazily pick. That's why I'm paying for an adventure instead of writing it myself. If I have a better idea than what is written, then I can supersede* their material with my own.

For example, I'm reading a review of Spires of Altdorf for Warhammer FRP 2nd edition. It talks about how some info on what might happen if you fight, sneak, or interact with the locals in a location, but complains that some of this info is given for mundane places like streets or generic tenements. Honestly, I have other things to think about when I'm running a game, and really appreciate having some suggestions in the location material. One of the things that I loved about City-State of the Invincible Overlord was the suggested encounter for every street. Those things really help provide a sense of what the city is like to live in and move through.

And yes, a generic "dungeon dressing" table like the ones in the DMG is really helpful, but I think that such tables are even better if they're tuned to the specific setting. So, I guess that I'm just disagreeing with one of the frequent points of Joseph "Against the Wicked City" Manola and Bryce "tenfootpole" Lynch. Adventure writers, please keep providing mundane set dressing for us lazy Referees.


*Fine, I give up. It's a dumb spelling, but I'll submit to it. For now.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Hierophant

We've played a fourth session of the Deindustrial Future game, but I haven't written it up yet. Here's something to tide you over.

Illustration: Walt McDougall, The Salt Lake Herald, February 22, 1903

Seems like an interesting critter. Anyone want to stat it up for one game or another? Feel free to post it here or to your own blog. If you post it to your blog, give me a link here if you wouldn't mind.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Deindustrial Future, Session 3

Our Story So Far

After the eventful night, our heroes decided to set off back to town in the morning in order to do some research on the copper fragment, the German manuscript, and Joe's property. Since he had things to do in town, Joe offered to give them a ride, which the characters gratefully accepted since Caleb is not a strong walker and Billy was still suffering from the stabbing he received in the saloon fight. The ride into town was uneventful.

Deciding to split up, Caleb decided to look into the manuscript at the library while Billy and Clem went to the local blacksmith to see if he might have any ideas on the copper fragment. The librarian, Charles, offered a letter of introduction to a woman named Ursula who he thought might be able to read the manuscript, as she came from Germany when she was a young woman. This turned out to be the case, and she discussed the nature of the manuscript with Caleb: it is a book involved with summoning particular spirits.

Meanwhile, Billy spoke with the blacksmith. It turned out, conveniently, that his hobbies included chemistry and metallurgy, so he was able to give an analysis of the metal fragment and indicated that it was nearly pure copper. Unable to find out much more, Billy and Clementine decided to check in with Joe, to make sure that he was OK.

As they approached the general store where Joe had said he was going to be for much of the day, they realized that there were three men, one at each end of the block and one leaning against a post across the street from the general store. As Clementine approached the doors of their destination, a fourth man stepped in front of her and barred her entry. Clementine tried to ask why he was in her way, but the man only told her to get out of town and that she wasn't welcome. Around this time, Billy noticed that the man at the far end of the block had disappeared, and the other two were walking toward the pair.

Clem, realizing that she wasn't going to get much further, attempted to shove the swinging door into Gordo, the man blocking her, and knocked him a bit back into the general store. He pulled out his gun and took a shot at her, but missed. Billy turned to face the two other men. Suddenly, a shot rang out from a building in the next block and one of the men fell down, shot in the back by a mysterious benefactor. Billy swung his staff at the other man, knocking the pistol out of his hand and pretty seriously injuring his arm.

Deciding that Gordo had upped the stakes, Clem drew her own pistol and planted three bullets in his chest, running inside to make sure he stayed down. When she went in, she managed to avoid being hit by another gunman inside, Alfie. After making sure that his opponent was running away, Billy decided to follow Clementine inside. As he did, he noticed a mystery man, hopefully their mysterious benefactor who stopped one of the attackers, approaching from a hotel in the next block.

Once inside, Billy chased down Alfie, but decided to charge him directly. Alfie put a couple of rounds into Billy's chest, knocking him out. Meanwhile, Clem and the mysterious stranger flanked Alfie and took him with only one more shot fired. Tying up the two prisoners, Gordo and Alfie, they took care of Billy and found Joe and the general store's owner hiding behind some shelves. They were discussing what to do and how to send for the town's Marshal, Marnie, when I started getting exhausted from the heat and decided that I needed to end the session. The mysterious stranger vanished in the confusion. Billy was taken to the town's doctor and given some healing elixir. Experience points were portioned out.

On the whole, I was happy with this session, though I am not sure how the players felt about it - they seemed happy enough. I was happy that we got to see how missile combat works in GURPS, and I offered an important tactical tip to Billy's player: don't get in front of a gun. Billy was fine and behind cover, and even had a good path to flank Alfie, but his player decided to run six yards straight into Alfie's gun's sights - a full move with no attack allowed that turn. That led to his character going into negative HP, in part because he was still injured from the knife wound of a couple of days (game time) ago. I suspect that this was left over from the player's extensive history of playing Hero System, which is perhaps a bit more forgiving of such heroic, direct charges.

I've talked the players into letting me run a Top Secret game as well, so that's what we'll be playing next.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

An Observation And A List

I don't have much to say right now. The holiday meant skipping a week for the game I'm running. Still, I have thinky thoughts.

First, I haven't seen anyone say this as bluntly as I think it needs to be said. Games that don't have skills, and even some that do, should be run with one major principle in place: characters succeed. If it's in question, roll a d6 (or maybe a Saving Throw in Swords & Wizardry and related games). If it involves people's reactions, make a reaction check.

When a character in D&D in any of its varieties before 1.5E tries to do something, it should generally just work unless it's ridiculous. This is even more true in versions that don't have a variation of the Thief class. No Thieves and you want to pick a lock? Did you buy lockpicks? Then you do it. Maybe a roll of 5-6 on 1d6 will cause the lockpicks to break after opening the door. Want to bust down a door? You do it (with a wandering monster check). If the DM says that the door is particularly tough, roll 1d6 with a modifier for your Strength, and a 5 or higher busts it down. If it's particularly complicated (hunting through a library for a particular manuscript, for example), maybe refer to the character's background and make a ruling based on that. In fact, setting a general background (Conan the Librarian!) might be the one thing you could add to character creation, where AD&D 1E has Secondary Skills for much the same purpose. Something technical like forging a sword would require an appropriate background, for example.

The same principle applies to other games. You're playing Traveller and you want to rappel down a wall? Do you have some rope? Then you do it. You want to convince someone to help you? Roll a reaction check (if you have some appropriate skill, maybe that will help modify the roll).

The general idea is that characters are generally competent to carry out the plans that their players make, for the most part.

Anyway, for the second point, here's a list of games that I have come to think have really stood the test of time, as it were. Games that I still like on the whole. A lot of these games work a lot better if you apply the above idea:

Amber Diceless Roleplaying
The Arcanum
Call of Cthulhu (up through 5.5E or so)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1E and 2E, though there have been some recent unofficial versions based on those that are great too)
CORPS (2E)
Cyberpunk (2013 and 2020)
D&D/AD&D (up through 2.0E/Rules Cyclopedia; after that, it gets weird; retroclones and similar variants elsewhere)
Empire of the Petal Throne
GURPS (3E revised and 4E)
In Nomine
James Bond 007
Kult
Lace & Steel (I think, I only played it once, still it looks good)
Lords of Creation
Pendragon (I prefer 4E, unlike other people apparently, but the other editions are great too)
Rolemaster/Spacemaster (I guess they're calling the good edition "Classic" now)
RuneQuest (never met a version I didn't like, yet)
Space 1889 (the GDW version, and I actually like the system; it's pretty much the only time I don't mind dice pools)
Star Trek RPG (FASA; I can't say that it's great, but it does the job well)
Star Wars (West End Games)
Star Wars (WotC, though it isn't as good as the WEG one; the only use I have for D20 system)
Stormbringer (4E is the best, after that they messed it up)
Swordbearer
Top Secret (original, the 1981 second edition, and the Companion)
Traveller (classic LBB77/LBB81/TTB/ST and MegaTraveller)
2300AD (I actually like the system)
Unknown Armies (I can't run it, apparently, but the ideas are great; maybe I'd be better at running it today)
Villains & Vigilantes (I haven't played Mighty Protectors yet, so I can't speak to that edition)

Games that I haven't played, but look good:

Adventurer Conqueror King System/ACKS
Big Eyes, Small Mouth (specifically Sailor Moon, Ghost Dog, and Revolutionary Girl Utena)
Celtic Legends
Guardians
Hârnmaster
Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Silent Legions
Stars Without Number (I'm pretty excited by the Revised Edition)
Starships & Spacemen (2E looks better than 1E)
Swords & Wizardry (White Box mainly, but the others are OK)
White Star (S&W: White Box in a galaxy far away that isn't Star Wars we promise)

Games that would be good but need development:

Fantasy Wargaming
Realms of the Unknown

You'll notice a distinct lack of White Wolf games and Shadowrun. That's because dice pools are dumb, in general. No Hero System because it's just too scattered for me these days. Also no Savage Worlds, which I might be being unfair about - I suppose that I have to play it more. And no goddamned FATE.

I might have missed some. If I didn't include your favorite system, ask me why I didn't. It might be an oversight.

NOTE: As time has gone on and I remember more games to include, I have been adjusting these lists slightly.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Deindustrial Future: Sessions 1 and 2

The group of players, as I noted before, chose to play in my Deindustrial Future game. To save you from having to follow the link, I described it there as follows:

GURPS Deindustrial Future - I presented this as a cross between Stephen King's Dark Tower series and Fallout without the nukes. The setting is the future a few hundred years after our civilization runs out of petroleum to fuel it. While electricity, and technology, does exist, the large-scale networks of power transmission and transportation infrastructure do not. Characters have access to items up to TL7 (most TL8 items require far too much interdependent, and so unavailable, infrastructure), but cost 2x as much as normal for every TL above 4 (roughly the 16th-18th centuries), which is the maximum easily sustainable technology level. The culture is heavily influenced by the American West, simply because that's easier to get everybody on the same page, but the world is split into, effectively, city-states and tribal chieftains - not unlike Europe's Migration Era after the fall of Rome. There's also some magic of a relatively subtle kind ("Path/Book Magic" for those of you who know GURPS) along with spirits, and alchemy of the standard GURPS sort ("snake oil") along with some other things like Gunslingers and traveling preachers of a sort.
I've refined this in play to note that there's still a sort of rump USA, based around where New York City exists today (well, a little inland of that due to rising ocean levels), but it bears a similarity to the USA we know in the same way that Byzantium in the 11th century bore a resemblance to the Roman Empire .  Either way, the players have started the game in the Illinois Kingdom, one of the more organized states of deindustrialized North America.

The three current player-characters are:

Caleb: a wandering Druid, notable for his extremely short stature.
Clementine: a Gunslinger.
Billy: a member of the Guild of Salvagers, a group of people who are somewhere between recyclers and archaeologists. Also a student of the martial arts. Caleb and Clem are friends of his, and often travel with him.

Because this game is a more cinematic take on the subject than other approaches I might have made, players started with 200 points. None of the players has played fourth edition GURPS previously (which did play a role in the selection of the game, as they like to broaden their experience), and I have never run or played fourth edition, though I have been reading it for several years. As a result, some of our rules-heavy play, such as combat, goes slowly and with a lot of page-flipping to make sure that things are remembered (this phase of learning to play a game is one of the many reasons that I do not like PDFs, which are even more cumbersome in practice than paper books if there's more than one to consult). I have taken the How to be a GURPS GM book's advice and limited the rules that we're using, though I have also chosen to jump right into GURPS Technical Grappling from the start. We've had some bobbles (notably that I misapplied some Technical Grappling elements), but we're getting into the groove.

We're meeting every other week in theory, usually every two to three weeks in practice.

As the game opened, the characters were on a journey to a meeting of the Salvagers' Guild at a small town on the edge of the Illinois Kingdom. Travel-weary, they had stopped in a saloon around a day's travel from their final destination to relax and prepare for the final leg of their travels. The saloon filled up with a few people when a group of six rowdies (we'll call them the McSomething Boys, due to their fairly generically thuggish nature) came in, taking up a table and generally making a noisy ruckus. Shortly, one of them started harassing a lone farmer named Joe, which quickly led to the others backing him up. The characters decided to intervene and a bar fight broke out.

Caleb threw a beer mug at the instigating McSomething Boy as he was jacking the famer, Joe, against the wall, causing him to lose his grip on the farmer and turn around to face the new threat. Billy grabbed one of the boys in an arm lock and found himself threatened by one of the others who had pulled out a knife. Clem decided not to use her pistols in order to not escalate the situation further, as two of the Boys came for her. Meanwhile, farmer Joe and the other saloon patrons scrambled for the exits as well as they could, while the bartender and server rushed to protect whatever bottle and glassware weren't out on the tables.

The players did win the fight, though the knife-wielding McSomething Boy stabbed Billy for a big chunk of damage. The whole fight took around 20 turns or so, or maybe a bit less (one of the players estimated it at 12 turns - I lost track and didn't record it well enough to know for sure). It might have taken a bit longer if I were using the "Last Gasp" rules on combat action, which I do hope to get to at some point. The town Marshal, Marnie, arrived to take custody of the three Boys who hadn't already made a run for it. The players learned, both from her and from questioning the Boys they'd captured, that the Boys were employees of Richard, a local ranch magnate who had been trying to take over Joe's land.

(Because we are new to using the combat system, that took up the first session of play. From here, we move on to the second session.)

Deciding to leave Billy to recover from his knife wound, Clem and Caleb asked Marnie, the town Marshal, where Joe's farm was located. She let them know, but asked if they could stay in town until next week when Judge Pike would be back, so that they could testify. They agreed, then headed out to Joe's farm to learn what they could. Due to Caleb's short legs, the journey to the farm was about two hours of walking. Meeting Joe's wife as she was hanging out laundry, she directed them to the back field where Joe and his son, Dick, were watering the crops, it being midsummer.

Interviewing Joe, they learned little more than they already knew, but Clementine's sharp gunslinger vision allowed her to notice a figure crawling from a pile of boulders at the top of a hill in the northern part of Joe's land. After asking Joe for permission, they started to approach cautiously, but when it seemed as though the mystery person looked directly at them, she took off at a run to try to catch them, with Caleb following as best he could. Unfortunately, by the time Clem arrived at the hillcrest, all that remained were some tracks heading off into a wooded area. When Caleb caught up, they considered following the tracks, but decided to check the boulder pile first. They found a hidden tunnel that led underground into a room which had two tunnels leading off from it. Clem climbed down to investigate while Caleb waited on the surface. The first tunnel led to a small room with a table on which were a bowl filled with a dark liquid and two candles, one on either side of the bowl, plus a small item made of a rooster foot with some feather tied to it. In the flickering candlelight, she didn't notice that there were also chalk markings on the table, though they would discover those shortly when Caleb would be brought down with a full torch to examine them.

Down the other tunnel, Clem found a small wooden elevator powered by a pulley system. That's when she called for Caleb to come help, first showing him the table, which he surmised was involved with spirits in some way, though he didn't recognize the specific set of symbols used. He also noted that the dark liquid in the bowl was wine.

With Clementine operating the pulley system, Caleb descended into the darkness and found that the elevator went down to a small room with three narrow tunnels leading off from it, generally in the direction of the stream that runs along the edge of Joe's property. Exploring all three, Caleb determined that one led nowhere, but the other two seemed to intersect a large vein of apparently pure copper. Most surprisingly, despite the moist conditions due to the proximity of the stream, the copper had no verdigris. Caleb used some tools lying in the tunnel to cut out a chunk to show Joe. After discussing the matter with Joe, the players decided to spend the night since it was getting late, in part so that they could protect the farmer if anything further were to happen.

In the morning, they set out back to the town, but Caleb, deciding to make the journey despite his injury, met them halfway. After being told about the copper vein, they all headed back to Joe's farm so that Billy could ask permission to take a piece to examine in town. During the ensuing discussion, the players learned that Joe had recently taken ownership of the farm from his uncle's will, and that there were a number of boxes of Joe's uncle's papers in the attic. Deciding that examining these might prove useful, the player grabbed a few of the many boxes of papers and started going through them. Caleb found a stash of apparently occult manuscripts written in German, but the rest of the papers they were able to examine before it got dark were of less interest. As the sun was starting to set, Clem noticed the glow of a fire in the fields!

As the farming family scrambled to prepare buckets and the water-cart, Caleb called on the weather to bring rain to help extinguish the fire before it could spread to do much damage. Between the rain, the fact that it still wasn't quite harvest time, and the water-cart, the fire ended up burning less than an acre of the wheat crop. The players surmised that the inopportune conditions for burning the fields might indicate that whoever was behind it may have been rushed to action, perhaps by their presence. At this point, we decided to break off the session. We'll next meet the week after the Fourth of July.

Overall, the players seem to be happy with the story and I'm certainly having fun slowly doling out clues about what is happening. I'm still not happy with my incomplete mastery of the rules, but I am also letting myself make mistakes so that I can learn from them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Some More Campaigns

In the last post, I mentioned six campaigns that I offered to my players that I wanted to run, and let them choose from among them. I mentioned elsewhere that I have a lot more where that came from, and I had whittled my various games down to just that half-dozen. Here are some more where those came from:

First, I have always wanted to run a game using Ken Hite's "Seas of Dread, Sails of Daring" setting that he outlined in the old GURPS 3E supplement, GURPS Horror, Third Edition, then revised (as just "Seas of Dread") for GURPS 4E in GURPS Horror, Fourth Edition. It might even supersede wanting to run Flashing Blades as a pirate game right now. Also, I'd kind of like to run ACKS in the Dwimmermount setting or Stonehell Dungeon in my Middle Sea setting using Delving DeeperSwords & Wizardry Core, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, or AD&D 1E with some of my own customized character classes. In addition, I wouldn't mind running a sandbox of Hârnmaster starting in Kanday in Hârn. Aside from these four examples of other people's campaigns/settings, though, I have some others.


  • AD&D 1E: Flanaess Sector - I still have considerable work that I'd need to do, but in addition to the idea of using White Star, as mentioned previously, I wouldn't mind converting AD&D for the purpose.
  • XXXXX: Metahumans Insurgent - This could be run using almost any superhero game. My preferences would be, in order, GURPS 4E, CORPS, Guardians, or Villains & Vigilantes. The idea is that the world woke up one day a month or two ago and a portion of the population had metahuman powers. The players would be in the upper tier, the portion that counts one in a million as members (500 points in GURPS, 200AP/200SP in CORPS, and standard starting characters in the other games). There would be a lower tier, one in a hundred thousand, that have lesser abilities, and the rest of the population have no metahuman abilities. The campaign would start with the world coming to realize that metahumans exist, and then trace the resulting collapse of society into chiefdoms ruled by metahumans and groups of metahumans. Or maybe some other outcome, depending on how things went. It would be inspired by the TV series Heroes, the movies Push, Chronicle, Jumper, Limitless, Lucy, and the like, and the comic book series ESPers. That is, no costumes, no silly names.
  • RuneQuest 3 or 6: Time of the Gods - This is a relatively undeveloped setting in my head, of a world in the late bronze or early iron age where city-states legitimize their rule by invoking gods into physical form as their rulers, or are held in control by powerful sorcerers. This would draw on an article by Jenell Jaquays published in Dragon magazine under a different name, titled "When Gods Walk the Earth", in issue 144. I could probably also do this setting in GURPS with a very small amount of work, or maybe using Hârnmaster with a bit more work.
  • Fantasy Wargaming: The Crusaders - Mainly, this would be a way to both show off and develop the FW game system. The game would be centered on a group of characters who have gone to join in the Third Crusade behind Richard the Lionheart. It would need at least six players, though, and a couple of the characters would be pre-gens.
  • Realms of the Unknown: Tribes of the Volyet - This would use the maps of my Middle Sea setting, though not the "things I know" about that setting. In this campaign, the Long Sea (not the Middle Sea, which is to the east of that map) is renamed as the Volyet, with the players controlling clans on the eastern shore of the Volyet Sea. I have some events in mind, obviously, but the first part of the campaign would be the players getting used to the system and dealing with each other and some of the NPC clans in the region.
  • CORPS: Deindustrial Future Dark - This would be the more realistic version of my Deindustrial Future setting. In this one, magic and such is scaled way the heck back, to the point that they are hardly discernible in the setting. No super gunslingers, no spirits, no alchemical potions. At least, not in the same sense as the GURPS version I am running now. I could also run this with GURPS, but I like to find reasons to use CORPS.
  • Top Secret: Cyberpunk Shadows - Near-future using the Top Secret rules. There are some basic spaceflight rules in Dragon magazine, along with an article on lasers in Top Secret, and it's not really all that difficult to come up with stats and rules for other futuristic technologies. I haven't really thought through what I'd actually do with it yet, but it's an idea that keeps pushing itself on me.
  • Chivalry & Sorcery 2E: Denizens of the Pale - Another one that mostly exists to showcase a rules set, and also the historical setting, this campaign would have the players as Anglo-Norman settlers in the Pale in Ireland in the early 13th century. They would have to live with the surrounding Irish people, as conquerors or neighbors.
There you go, an even dozen other campaigns that I have desires for in my head, bringing the total I've written down here to eighteen. This is what happens when you don't game for too long. Or when I don't, anyway. Maybe some of them will inspire you to come up with something, or maybe I can figure out ways to run one or more of them. Realms of the Unknown, for example, is particularly suited to Play By (E-)Mail formats.

And, you know, I have still more campaigns in my head. If there's interest, maybe I'll write down some more.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

FINALLY!

So, after several years of looking in varying degrees of intensity, I finally have a (hopefully) regular gaming group again, for which I am running the game. It's a couple of old friends who live in the area.

When they agreed to let me run something, I gave them six choices:


  • MegaTraveller: Noble House - This would be my own MT setting, using my conversion and update of the Pocket Empires rules from T4 (which aren't complete right now, but I would have worked extra hard to get them ready in time to run the game). The story would revolve around a noble house and its retainers, and the intrigues of a rival house to discredit and dismantle them.
  • Top Secret: Special Missions Bureau - A Top Secret game set in the early '80s, with Cold War intrigue and globehopping adventure. I intended to take the results of the game and use them to provide a background for a second arc which would take place in the modern day.
  • White Star: The Flanaess Sector - In this one, the players would be gritty, down on their luck adventurers in the Flanaess Sector, against a background of interstellar rebellion against a distant empire. I'm afraid that I didn't present this option to the players very well, though it was considered.
  • Flashing Blades: Scourge of the Caribbean - Swashbuckling pirates in the Caribbean Sea!
  • GURPS Deindustrial Future - I presented this as a cross between Stephen King's Dark Tower series and Fallout without the nukes. The setting is the future a few hundred years after our civilization runs out of petroleum to fuel it. While electricity, and technology, does exist, the large-scale networks of power transmission and transportation infrastructure do not. Characters have access to items up to TL7 (most TL8 items require far too much interdependent, and so unavailable, infrastructure), but cost 2x as much as normal for every TL above 4 (roughly the 16th-18th centuries), which is the maximum easily sustainable technology level. The culture is heavily influenced by the American West, simply because that's easier to get everybody on the same page, but the world is split into, effectively, city-states and tribal chieftains - not unlike Europe's Migration Era after the fall of Rome. There's also some magic of a relatively subtle kind ("Path/Book Magic" for those of you who know GURPS) along with spirits, and alchemy of the standard GURPS sort ("snake oil") along with some other things like Gunslingers and traveling preachers of a sort.
  • CORPS Old Solar System - Dying Mars with its ancient civilizations and canals crossing the cold deserts, overcast Venus and its vast, jungle swamps, shallow seas, and saurian monsters. I hadn't yet figured out what would be around Jupiter and Saturn (or further out yet!), but Mercury was to be largely drawn from Space 1889's "Nodding World" with its planet-girdling World River. Lots of inspiration from C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett.


After some discussion, the players settled on the GURPS Deindustrial Future game, despite the fact that none of them have played much GURPS (they have an ongoing Champions game and have stayed focused on HERO System, though like most sensible people they shied away from the sixth edition of that game). Since I haven't played much 4E GURPS myself, things have been a learning experience for us all. I hope to write up some about their characters and their first adventure (a saloon brawl that took us a long time because of our collective unfamiliarity with actually playing the game)  soon.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

[Obscure Games] Special: Games for Game Designers

I haven't done an Obscure Games for a while, but I thought that I'd do something a little bit different this time. Here's a list, with capsule reviews, of roleplaying games that game designers should be familiar with, in addition to D&D. These are games that introduce some sort of concept that I think should be considered by people designing roleplaying games. They are not necessarily my favorite games, though in many cases they are, nor are they necessarily games that as a whole are fun to play, only ones that have something of interest to add to the body of game design.

Adventurer Conqueror King System (aka ACKS): A variation on the "B/X" version of D&D, ACKS is one of the best D&D-like games around today. The published setting material is a little bit sketched out at the moment rather than detailed, but the main attraction, for me, is the work that the designers put in to make the economics of the game solid. This allows for games that center on trade and commerce as well as the traditional looting and pillaging. At higher levels of power, the characters get involved in larger-scale events (which you'll find is a common feature in the games I am listing here), especially doing well at the network of intelligence-gathering surrounding a "thieves' guild". That said, the style of economics they pursue is more relevant to a fairly "sophisticated" society such as the Roman Empire or Renaissance Europe rather than, say, a society of barbarian tribal groups, but it does seem to be serviceable for feudal settings as well. Still, the details could almost certainly be adapted to fit any economic system.

Albedo The Role-Playing Game: Often dismissed due to its "furry" content, Albedo is actually a solid hard-SF setting with innovative RPG mechanics that deserve more attention. Set in a region of space that is populated by genetically uplifted Terran animals (who basically awoke one day with full intelligence, raised by AI systems that taught them the sciences and so forth), the game follows the rising tensions between the Interstellar Confederacy (the ConFed) and the Independent Lapine Republic (ILR, or The Republic). Notable game systems include the unusual treatment of armor and injury and the author's first attempt at Ties/Antipathies and their effects on the character's Self-Image (see Lace & Steel below for the game designer's second foray at the concept). There's also a solid mechanic for simulating the character's ability to act in stressful situations, called "Coolness Under Fire". The emotional state of characters is an important area of design that has been largely ignored in the past.

Call of Cthulhu: At this point, most people know of this game and its primary innovation, the Sanity system. Still, I should at least mention it here.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Mostly just a new way to approach the same game systems as D&D, while updating the game a bit, but still keeping the "old school" nature of the rules. The way that magic is handled, with Patrons and variable spell effects and so on, indicates a way to keep magic from becoming too predictable without screwing over players who choose to play magic-users.

Fantasy Wargaming: Generally only noted when people want to make fun of it, Fantasy Wargaming is a better design than its detractors would have it (if, unfortunately, underdeveloped and poorly laid-out in ways that lead to detraction by those who only read and never play). I've already done an extensive review of this one, which I link at the beginning of this paragraph. Systems to watch include the unified magic and religion system, what is among the earliest attempts to deal with characters' emotions in the "temptation" system (I'm not sure whether Call of Cthulhu's Sanity system predates it, as both games were released in 1981), and the integration of the medieval "physics" system (that is, astrology) into nearly every aspect of the game.

Flashing Blades: Still, in my opinion, the best swashbuckling RPG out there. It has quick, yet flavorful, mechanics to cover the sorts of scrapes that musketeers and pirates find themselves in, as well as the sorts of dirty tricks they pull to get out of those scrapes. Most importantly, though, it has an extensive "Career" system that allows a character to start at the bottom and work their way to the top in one field or another, whether that be the Royal Bureaucracy, the Church, or the Military, among other pursuits.

GURPS: Among other things good about it, GURPS includes a lot, and I mean a lot, of useful detail in its various supplements, from how quickly characters can dig to potential problems with pregnancies. I'd especially point designers toward some of its alternative magic systems, and most especially to the one they call "Path/Book Magic" (sometimes just "Path Magic") in the fourth edition. In the third edition, it was called "Spirit Magic".

Hârnmaster: Designed specifically for the world of Hârn, obviously, but people have adapted it to other settings as well. The system is not very different than that of RuneQuest, but the way that combat wounds are handled should be something that every designer knows about. Basically, each wound is described based on the type of damage (blunt, edged, puncture, etc), the severity of the blow, the location hit, and so forth. If the wound is bleeding, that is noted. Each wound is given a rating indicating how severe and therefore how much it affects the character through pain, tissue damage, and so on, and then when it is treated it also gets a rating for how fast it will heal. That also leads to examining if the wound becomes infected. Treatments are based on the type of damage, so that a bruise might only need an herbal compress, while a similar cut needs to be bandaged, and a compound fracture might need a surgeon (or chirurgeon). This sounds complicated, but in fact is very easy to do at the table, only slightly more complex than RuneQuest's tracking of hit points by location or GURPS's handling of "major wounds", critical hits, special damage types and hit locations, and so on.

Lace & Steel: Designer Paul Kidd's second RPG design, it refines some of the concepts that he worked on in Albedo, above. The setting is fun, with a number of mainly Greek mythological races (trolls and pixies being the main exceptions) living in a mostly Renaissance-era setting with magic. The biggest weakness of the game is the reliance on proprietary card decks for major game systems. That was fashionable at the time, but there's a reason that almost no games use those methods today. To me, one of the most useful design ideas is the concept of "travel fatigue". Basically, characters roll against their Travel skill and Endurance every day or two of travel to avoid minor discomforts, or even losing items of equipment or damaging clothing. Properly-cooked food or spending the night at the inn instead of in the open can help recover this fatigue during the journey, with more luxurious rooms providing a better chance of recovering from the fatigue. There are also mass combat and ship combat systems, so that the players can be involved in major events.

Pendragon: Using a simplification of Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system as a base, Pendragon is simply the best Arthurian fantasy game out there. It includes several innovations that help reinforce the mood and setting, such as a system of Personality Traits and Passions that provide a method of depicting characters' emotions, built-in high-level play such as tending the characters' various manors that provide them with income and a base of operations, and the concept of "Dynastic Play", where the player will eventually end up, in a continuing campaign, playing their original character's children, grandchildren, and so on. Personally, I like the fourth edition, which includes a magic system and provision for wizard and female characters, but I understand that some people are less fond of that one. I don't know much about the fifth edition, to be fair.

Reign: Using the "One Roll Engine" (ORE) system, this fantasy game focuses on faction play. That is, the characters will be in charge of some organization or group that allows them to participate in the high-level events of the setting. One notable feature is the ability to either design or roll a character randomly, in a way that doesn't privilege one over the other. But it's the faction rules that should grab the attention of a prospective game designer.

The Riddle of Steel: Takes a lot of ideas from Pendragon and other games, which is fine, but the main innovation that this game brings is a solid grounding in actual medieval weapons use. Also includes another way to integrate character personality and emotions into the game mechanics. Unfortunately difficult to find, there is a "successor" game called Blade of the Iron Throne that apparently develops the system further in a more sword & sorcery setting, but I haven't seen that game and can't comment on it.

Space 1889: For whatever reasons, some people don't like the game system that GDW developed for this game, which was a simplified version of the "GDW House System" that powered the second edition of Twilight 2000, along with other games such as Traveller: The New Era and Dark Conspiracy. That said, the method that the designers chose to represent the abilities of inventors was a surprisingly interesting system, pointing toward an alternative way to approach "magical" abilities in a game, or could probably be adapted to any of a number of different game abilities.

Stars Without Number: Another game that is built on a D&D-like game system, the setting is purely designed to facilitate gaming, and should be examined carefully for its lessons in that vein. In addition, the game includes a number of Referee tools to facilitate running it, such as faction rules (see Reign, above), the concept of location tags (to provide a quick differentiation between one place and another), and so on. The game is a mastercourse in game design focused on the needs of a roleplaying campaign. All of the other games from Sine Nomine Publishing (the imprint of the designer, Kevin Crawford) are also worth examining for various reasons, generally having to do with systems that enable and facilitate "sandbox" style play while also providing a dynamic background.

Swordbearer: There are a lot of little rules choices here that serve to make a fairly unusual gaming experience. Notable ones include the abstracted approach to character wealth, where wealth is related to social status directly and finding treasure only acts to change the effective social status of the character (this has been approached in other games since, with varying degrees of success), the highly flavorful magic system, and (for me at least) the detailed travel rules, with parties taking time for breaks during the day's march, an extensive table of terrain and how long it takes to cross the various types, and so on. Combined with the "travel fatigue" rules of Lace & Steel, above, and the wilderness survival rules found in some Traveller supplements, I would be in some bliss.

Traveller: Most roleplaying games include the concept of increasing a character's personal abilities through "experience" or similar victory point systems, to the point that computer RPGs are partially defined by this feature. Traveller provides an interesting alternative to this method of character advancement. In this game, characters increase in power through acquiring wealth, building networks of contacts and favors, and so forth rather than through increasing their personal abilities. Advancement is also not tied to any predetermined abstract scheme (gaining victory points for finding treasure or completing story goals or whatever), but is concretely related to what the characters do in the setting. This doesn't mean that the characters can't increase in skill over time, but the timeframe is much longer than most other RPGs choose, and also is not tied to any action the characters perform other than pursuing that skill increase. MegaTraveller allows for more experience-based advancement, but the timeframe is still incredibly long compared to other RPGs. This helps add to the sense of the game that time passes while the characters work on long-term problems. The game has a long history and includes a number of excellent supplements, too, ranging from detailed survival rules in the "Environment" series from Gamelords to the excellent player-facing dynastic game found in the Pocket Empires supplement for the fourth edition of the game.

There are likely other games that I could include (CORPS comes to mind), but generally the principles that I think that they present are too difficult to explain. Obviously, a game designer should be conversant in a wide number of games in order to have a body of ideas on which to draw and then fit to the particular game being designed.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Converting Pocket Empires

I grabbed this from the "Noble" article at
Wookieepedia. They don't credit the artist, but
it seems to be Gonzalo Flores, according to the
signature. If he wants me to take it down, I will.
Speaking of converting Pocket Empires to MegaTraveller, I have done a bit of work toward that which I think could be shared here. I've been working out the probabilities from one set of difficulty numbers to another. For your entertainment and possible value, here are the equivalent target numbers for a roll of 2, 2.5, 3, 4, and 5 dice (as used in Marc Miller's Traveller, aka T4, and also, except for the 2.5D roll, in Traveller5) vs. an average stat of 7:

2D = 7+
2.5D = 9+
3D = 10+
4D = 12+
5D = 15+ (figured as stat of 7 with a DM+3, or a target of 10, to get to about the same odds as 12+)

Note that these don't convert very perfectly to the difficulty levels of other Traveller editions, but then they don't really need to. The point is to get in the same ballpark, not necessarily to hit the exact same odds.

My current thinking is that T4 "Difficult" should be MT "Difficult" with an automatic DM+2, T4 "Formidable" and "Staggering" should both convert to MT "Difficult" (I could give them DMs of +1 or -1 to match the odds exactly, but that gets a bit fiddly), and T4 "Impossible" should be MT "Formidable". As an aside, that should also make T5 difficulties of 6D or higher equivalent to MT "Impossible".

I am assuming the use of the MgT stat modifiers. I haven't decided whether to use those, the original MT ones, or the ones in a set of house rules for MT I found online, where the modifier = (stat/3)-2 rounded up, or a version where the modifier is (stat/3)-1 rounded down. I'm kinda leaning toward that last one.

One of the issues involved with conversion is that I can't just take the given difficulty and port it over directly. Some of the T4 tasks rely on two attributes, which distort the probabilities since attributes are around three to five times more potent in T4 (and also TNE and T5, though that's not really relevant here) than they are in most other editions. So, a T4 task which relies on two attributes would have a target of around 14 or less on average (since the average attribute is a 7), while in MT by the book it would be an average of DM+2. A Routine task would have a 100% chance of succeeding in T4 (2D vs. a target of 14 or less), while it would have an 83% chance in MT (base target 7+, DM+2 = final target 5+ = 83%). So, instead what I need to do is check each task, figure its base odds with average stats and skill-0 if necessary, and convert it from there.

Edit to add: I want to include a link to this article, which is kept at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames: Noble House

I've been putting this one off mostly because I really wanted to do the subject justice. (Edit to add: Not that I think that I have, but I have been letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough for too long now.) This is the campaign frame for Traveller that I myself most want to play in, or run if I must. It has been generally unsupported in official Traveller products, with the closest being Adventure 5 Trillion Credit Squadron and the colonial economic model in World Tamer's Handbook (and don't get me wrong, those were good and potentially useful for the subject), but in the fourth edition, Marc Miller's Traveller (also called T4 for short), the supplement Pocket Empires came out.

Oh, this was a joy for me to see. Finally, the game would support campaigns inspired by Dune and other sources involving high-level politics and intrigue. There were rules covering everything from the economic development of worlds to incorporating new worlds into your pocket empire to setting up and finalizing a marriage between members of your noble family and another one. Assassination attempts, espionage, politics on the floor of the Senate, all of these things were covered in the high-level game here.

There were some weaknesses, of course. The basic game had a development turn a full year in length, which could lead to pretty severe discontinuities between the Pocket Empires layer and the roleplaying layer. The rules for voting factions in politics were a little rudimentary, but still serviceable. The military forces abstractions were perhaps a bit too abstract (although this was at least partly remedied with the addition of Imperial Squadrons, which was a major revision and update to T4 standards of Trillion Credit Squadron). The handling of corporations avoided many of the things that give that aspect of play its distinct flavor, with no insider trading, no boardroom politics, no shares changing hands, only what amounts to an abstracted hostile takeover and a few other simple tactics.

Some of the elements of the noble life have been handled over the years. I mentioned a number of resources in the last installment of "Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames", and at least one more has appeared since then in the form of an article titled "The Influence Game", posted over at Wayhaven Traveller, which could be used to fix the lackluster politics rules in Pocket Empires.

That really just leaves the problems of the speed of play and the generic, unfulfilling corporation rules. The corporations could be handled by looking at the rules on high finance and setting up and running corporations, getting them onto publicly traded markets, and so on that are found in GURPS Traveller: Far Trader, but it still misses the whole corporate struggle aspect as the authors left out the dirty tricks from the Stock Exchange floor. For that, we have to look further afield, to a supplement for the game TORG called Nippon Tech. That included a whole sequence of corporate warfare and a character type, the "Mega-corporation CEO", that could use it. Issuing junk bonds, taking advantage of insider trading, and most importantly the results of adventuring such as sabotage or stolen information are all embedded into the game as warfare against the opponents happens on the trading floor as much as in a firefight.

A lot of these different layers include the idea of a turn length of a week to a month. It shouldn't be hard to incorporate that into the main Pocket Empires sequence. That would fit everything more tightly to the roleplaying layer of the campaign, which effectively has a "turn length" of one week, since that's how often Patron and Rumor checks are made, how long a Jump takes, and so on.

All of this is important to me, as I am (slowly) working to convert Pocket Empires to MegaTraveller standards. I think that edition is the easiest to convert to any of the various other editions out there, so that it could be easily used with CT, CE, MgT, T5, or whatever. I intend to flesh out the corporate section and the politics especially, but also spend some more time on the military elements. Integrating it more completely with the roleplaying is my priority, of course. Setting out a specific method of generating the Noble House and its starting assets will be important too, as will working out ways to incorporate the players into the House.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Gaming Settings

CC by-nc-sa Lonnie Dunn, found here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/archaicwarrior/5969822137
As I've been working on a fantasy RPG that works from different assumptions than the D&D stream (while still being "old school", since it draws heavily on Traveller for its mechanics), I've been thinking about what makes a setting good for gaming. Here are some of those thoughts, taken as a quick tour through some gaming and fiction worlds.

Middle-Earth: Tolkien's world is great for his stories, but terrible for gaming. Everything in it is already pretty well set and with little wiggle room. Plus, it is the prototype of what we might call "generic gaming fantasy", with its elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. While I love it for Tolkien's stories, for gaming it is dreary and dull. A couple of games manage to work some usable gaming material out of it, but in each case it is either by leaving Tolkien's setting behind to some degree or by so limiting the area and scope that the players can't get their characters tied up in Tolkien's plots. One thing that I do love about Middle-Earth is Tolkien's proclivity toward nature writing. A lot of people count that as a flaw in his works, but I love it. And the singing too.

Glorantha: While it has elves and dwarves, Glorantha does everything so differently that it is just bonkers. Anyway, elves (aldrayami) and dwarves (mostali) are the merest sideshows in the craziness of Gloranthan societies. With ducks, trolls, and even wilder thinking species, Glorantha is a place people will either love or hate. The bronze age aesthetic appeals to me, though I sometimes get lost in Stafford's wildness. The way that spirits and magic are handled in the setting is well worth anyone examining, and one can examine it from the perspective of simulation (RuneQuest) or narrative (HeroQuest), depending on your predilection. It might be best to look at how both games approach the setting.

Oerth (aka The World of Greyhawk): While this is technically generic gaming fantasy of the type noted above, the treatment of the setting as a real place, where population numbers and numbers of troops are recorded, where trade goods are placed by region of origin, and where gaming necessities like examining what the players are doing as a profession are incorporated as institutions in the setting make this one of the most vital and essential gaming settings to look at. It doesn't hurt that it's also one of the most diverse settings, with the populations of the centerpiece continent, the Flanaess, being largely people of color (and this has been true for longer than that was something that audiences demanded).

Tékumel: Probably the first setting specifically for gaming to be published - though it originated long before gaming, Professor Barker developed it in a role-playing campaign. As a result, it has some elements that are specifically directed toward the needs of player-characters in the setting, such as the underworld of every major city. Being the first, it was also not tied to the assumptions of previous efforts and so is a gloriously insane look at some of the potentials of worldbuilding. Like the earliest D&D games seem to have been, it is a "science-fantasy" setting, with advanced technology sitting next to marvelous magic. If you're a worldbuilder and haven't looked at Tékumel yet, you're missing out.

Dark Sun: This was the first published setting I saw where the potentials of worldbuilding came clear to me. It happened as I was sitting in on a game session, waiting for one of the players, and I listened as the party leader chose to set aside some gold in favor of carrying more water. That was stunning to me at the time, since I had gotten used to players taking as much gold as possible to maximize their experience points. Just crazy! I looked further into it, and was unimpressed by some of the decisions, but the way that the desert environment was baked into the setting still leaves me in awe. The ways that the generic gaming fantasy thinking species were re-imagined is worth examining. I also learned how important a seemingly little thing like logistics can be to creating flavor.

Hârn: Yes, humans, dwarves, and elves. There are some weaknesses of this setting, but the lovingly crafted detail is inspiring. Treating characters as if they were more than just a collection of statistics (though there are a lot of statistics in the game that goes along with the setting, it is also suitable for a number of different rules sets), and the setting as if it were more than merely a backdrop in front of which characters kill things, helps to set a tone that I appreciate deeply.

Spelljammer: A look at what can be done with generic gaming fantasy if cut loose from some of its assumptions. I love it, but it seems to have been eclipsed by Planescape, perhaps because the existence of Spelljamming ships deforms other settings that include them, so that Oerth, the Forgotten Realms, and Krynn sat uneasily among the assumed worlds of the setting and should never have been included there in the first place.

The Young Kingdoms: Worth examining to see how a fiction setting (in this case, the Elric of Melniboné stories) can be fitted to the needs of a gaming campaign. By focusing on areas that are mentioned but only incompletely explored in the fiction sources, while carefully avoiding breaking canon, the setting details in the Stormbringer RPG (and its other - in my opinion inferior - incarnation, Elric) provide an interesting and alternative take on some concepts that have become over-familiar. The Melnibonéans sit as a sort of decadent elvish society that provides a useful contrast to the sorrowful or joyful ones that one can get from emphasizing different aspects of Tolkien's elves.

Hyboria: Speaking of Elric (who was explicitly created to be the antithesis of Conan), Howard's setting happens to be useful in gaming terms, with plenty of different directions to choose to travel as characters. It's also very helpful in providing a world in which all, well most, of the thinking species are just humans. Unfortunately, in part it does this by making all sorts of assumptions about "race" and whatnot, so it should be examined carefully and sifted finely to extract the useful parts.

Which reminds me to add that I am not very fond of settings that try to "reimagine orcs" as noble whatevers. As I have often said, if you're doing that, why do you have orcs at all? What is it about orcs that you need in that setting and cannot get from just making the adversaries human? The whole point of orcs is to give players a foe they can slaughter with a minimum of moral quandary. "Subverting" that simply removes the only reason for orcs to exist. It's one thing to examine orc society in detail, as is done in Hârn for example, but pointless to make them out to be some sort of noble savage, unjustly misunderstood by humanity. That role is equally suitable for humans, whether of a different skin color than the players' characters or perhaps just with differing sartorial assumptions, and more pertinent for that theme as well. The subverted orc is just a trap for the players that they can't rightly get out of: "Here are some orcs, go ahead and kill them!" "OK, now that you've killed a bunch of them, here's why you're awful people for doing that." It's not a moral test, it's just being a shitty Referee.

Anyway, the point here is that a gaming setting should pay attention to what the players will be doing with their characters in the setting. You can't just plop them down and assume that they will do things. You have to give them things to do, and you have to arrange the setting so that they will be able to do those things. For instance, Oerth has the institution of the "adventurer", who is someone who does a certain type of thing and is given privileges to pursue that occupation in the assumed laws of the land. In Tékumel, there are networks of tunnels underneath the cities that interested parties can explore in a search for lost technology and such. And so on. Put those things in your world setting.